October 31 , 2005
English course goes bump in the night
Haunted houses, imperiled maidens, evil vampires, psychological
fear: All Halloween staples, but they also are essential elements
in gothic literature.
A highly stylized literary genre that peaked in the
1800s, the gothic aesthetic continues into modern times throrugh
not only books but
film and even video games.
Indeed, gothic’s pop-culture life often overwhelms its presence as a serious
and significant fiction device.
“Classic Gothic” is a section of ENG 181, Writing About Literature,
that introduces freshmen to novels, novellas and short stories that form the
core of this distinctive style.
“I was looking for something that would involve genre, and popular kinds
of stories, because I thought that would grab freshmen,” said English Lecturer
Jean De Silva, who conceived of and teaches the course. She earned her doctorate
at Emory last year studying popular fiction, specifically Edgar Rice Burrows’ dime-store
novels of the early 20th century. When offered the opportunity to teach ENG 181,
she expanded her interest in genre fiction and came up with gothic. She put together
the syllabus over the summer.
“I wanted to make sure the work had real literary quality,” said
De Silva whose upbeat demeanor contrasts with gothic’s often moody tone.
By calling the course “Classic Gothic,” De Silva wanted to inform
students that, rather than focus on “scary stories” of modern times
(although the classic readings certainly do not lack chills), the coursework
would go a bit deeper.
“What’s really neat about the gothic is that it’s gripping
enough to have plot-driven elements that appeal to students, but there are also
some really good writers who sort of wandered into the genre,” she said.
Those writers include Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen
(who wrote a gothic spoof called Northanger Abbey), Mary Shelley
the masterpiece of the gothic genre; the class will read and discuss
two weeks of November) and Horace Walpole, who wrote the first gothic
novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1765. Later writers include Americans
and Joseph Conrad, whose work centers on the terror inside as opposed
to the monsters
on the outside.
In all, De Silva will touch on literature than spans
three centuries, and the cycle (from the beginnings of the genre
with Walpole, to the
center and then the psychological fear of the end) she wants to complete
is by design.
The monster cycle is the drawing card, but De Silva
carefully points out that while much of 19th century gothic fiction
was not necessarily
quality, masterworks like Frankenstein and many vampire stories of the
era were essentially
questions about playing god or defining class struggle—wrapped
in a haunting, supernatural package.
All the reading aside, the course title of ENG 181
is Writing About Literature, and “Classic Gothic” is
not an exception. Students must complete six formal papers over the
semester as well as submit informal writings prior
to each class related to that day’s material.
De Silva gave students an option for their final paper,
due in mid-December. They could broaden a previous research paper
by adding sources, or they
could show off their understanding of gothic as a genre by writing an
introduction to their own gothic story.
“Their eyes lit up,” De Silva said. “Writing critical papers
is one thing, but [adopting gothic style] is a great way to show an understanding
With Halloween falling right in the middle of the semester,
De Silva knew that the class would be itching to do something special.
Eve included holding class in Oakland Cemetery, eating as a group at
the popular restaurant Six Feet Under, or watching a scary movie. But
the unfriendly logistics
of off-campus travel intervened, and the holiday will be celebrated
merely with candy and the creaking of De Silva’s office door.
It’s located just
outside the Callaway Building classroom, and she makes sure to open
creaking is louder that way. It’s the best she can do to instill
moody fear when class is held in a old computer lab with a tile floor.
“The teaching of gothic literature is becoming increasingly popular,” De
Silva said. “I’ve heard of what other classes do to try and re-create
the terror—like holding class on a rooftop or having readings in a graveyard.
Maybe we can do that another time.”